How Did East Falls Get Its Name?

map of east falls

July 1, 2016 will mark the 100th anniversary of East Falls! But how can that be, you ask: is it not well known that this neighborhood, once an independent town, goes back to the 17th century? But only as of 1916 did the Falls of Schuylkill become East Falls.

When I (Steven Peitzman, EFHS board member) was doing some research on the history of the eastern and newer part of East Falls, once known as Queen Lane Manor, this question arose: when did we become East Falls in some official manner? The incomparable researcher Joe Terry (a former librarian, after all) set about answering this question, using particularly the scrapbooks of newspaper clippings in our collections, mainly the “Chadwick Papers.” I have recently looked further into the railroad connection. And now we would like to share our preliminary findings.

First, there were falls: water at one time rushed over some large rocks in the river just south of the current Falls Bridge. But in 1821 the creation of a dam downstream as part of the Fairmount Water Works raised the level of the river enough to submerge our natural dam into invisibility. Still, Falls of Schuylkill stuck as the name of the little village which would become a major locus of manufacturing in the nineteenth century and a desirable residential district into the twentieth. Trains of the Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Railroad first ran from center city as far as Manayunk in 1835 – the PG & N was in fact one of the country’s earliest railways. No doubt there was a stop at Falls of Schuylkill from its inception and both passengers and eventually industry were served. By the mid- to late nineteenth century, our stop was officially known as “Falls” or “Falls Station.” It is listed as such in the Official Guide of the Railways (a monthly listing of schedules and other information) into the early twentieth century, and appears as such on the 1910 Bromley Atlas of Philadelphia (see map attached).

Across the Schuylkill was (or is) a “station” known as West Falls, and that as well goes back to the nineteenth century. Again, see the map. But there was not much of a settlement near West Falls (there was some industry there), and it does not appear in a list of passenger stations in the 1908 Official Guide or in a listing in a standard history of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad (later known as “The Reading Company” and “Reading Lines”).  So, what was “West Falls”? In the idiosyncratic language of railroading, a “station” is not always a station, at least in the sense of a passenger station. A “station” can be defined (by railroad people) as a point along a line which for some purpose is designated and named. West Falls was in fact such a point – and a historically important one. It was a junction: trains of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad coming down along the Schuylkill could, at West Falls, either cross the River on the stone arched viaduct (still there and in occasional use) and steam up grade, through Falls of Schuylkill, conveying enormous amounts of anthracite coal to Port Richmond for distribution; or, other trains would stay on the west bank and head into Philadelphia. A building at West Falls does appear on old maps, but I believe this was the “tower” from which railway staff controlled the various movements of what, at one time, were a lot of trains. By 1917 the passenger station on the east side was officially listed as “East Falls.” The Reading likely made this change to avoid confusion with “West Falls,” and because some other stations in the country also were called “Falls.” Or, someone at the Reading liked symmetry and balance.

Mr. Terry’s searching turned up in the Chadwick Papers a tiny clipping from a publication called the Weekly Forecast dated July 6, 1916 which reads as follows: “The local post office has changed the name from Station Z to ‘East Falls’ station. This has been in effect since July 1.” Another clipping from the Chadwick Papers (source uncertain) reads as follows (in part):

Since July 1, this year of grace 1916, the local post office, known from the time of its establishment as “Station Z,” has the name “East Falls Post Office.” Not a voice, so far as I have heard, has been lifted in protest against the change, or the meaningless title given in place of the old.

(Exactly why the anonymous writer thought that “East Falls” held less meaning than “Station Z” must remain a puzzle, though of course people get attached to things and don’t much like change.) Based on some other material and sound inference, Joe Terry concluded that the change in the name of the post office followed the change implemented by the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, and I agree. No major railroad of the early twentieth century (even one that fell into bankruptcy as often as the Reading) would change the name of a station merely to follow what the United States Post Office chose to do. In any case, with both the post office and the train station designated “East Falls” in 1916, so eventually followed the general adoption of the name for the neighborhood—though no doubt not by long-time Fallsers. It was just in this period – 1905 to 1920—that development transformed old estates and farms north and east of the old village into the handsome residential streets of “Queen Lane Manor,” a name assigned by the entrepreneurs, and one eventually also displaced by “East Falls.”

Steven J. Peitzman